An alternative to vouchers in the works?

Published: Thursday, Nov. 15 2007 12:16 a.m. MST

The door slammed on private school vouchers last week, but a window apparently cracked open for a sister concept Wednesday.

Leading private school tuition-voucher group Parents for Choice in Education, along with the nonprofit Children First Utah, is working to get the word out about other states that give businesses income-tax credits for donating to private school scholarship groups, executive director Elisa Clements said.

Children First Utah, believed to be the only such private school scholarship group in Utah, was asked to present at Wednesday's Education Interim Committee. The presentation included mention of Pennsylvania's and Florida's income-tax credits for businesses donating to scholarship-granting organizations.

"Make no mistake: no vouchers this year," Clements said of the 2008 legislative session, which starts in January. "But everyone has said we are open to looking at meaningful education reforms. Our job this year is to promote education reforms ... whatever those reforms might be."

Children First Utah was not on the committee's agenda. State law requires agendas to list each topic for discussion.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, called the item "background information for the committee" that was not discussed and therefore in line with the law.

But Utah Education Association government-relations chief Vik Arnold wondered how Children First Utah could be fit into an agenda so packed that the committee deferred public comment on proposed legislation. Maybe that shows "an appetite on the part of some legislators for an alternative to vouchers," he said.

Children First Utah this year gave 368 low-income children up to $1,800 — or half their tuition cost — to attend private school, executive director Leah Barker told lawmakers. About 2,000 applied. Scholarships are awarded by lottery.

"We feel like we're serving a tremendous population," Barker said.

The group has used $2 million in private donations to provide more than 1,800 scholarships to date, Barker said. She hopes the attention to vouchers might inspire more donations.

There are other incentives, Clements said.

"They can only do so much (fund raising)," she said. "Having a solution that's more permanent ... where a corporation could give some of their tax liability, that's an added incentive to fund a nonprofit like Children First Utah."

Pennsylvania and Florida offer a corporate tax credit worth up to 75 cents on the donated dollar, Clements reports. Pennsylvania caps the credit at $200,000 per corporation and $54 million overall. Florida's program doesn't cap the tax credit for businesses, but they can't give more than $5 million to a single nonprofit. The statewide program ceiling is $88 million.

Clements said her group is not talking to any particular legislator about such a program.

"We just want to put it out on the table," Clements said. "If they're interested in serving these children who need something else, here's one way to do it."

Dayton, who is committee vice chairwoman, also knew of no efforts to draft such a bill. Even so, she added, "I think it's certainly worthy of discussion."

But legislative leaders say: not this year.

"You can call it vouchers, you can call it scholarship payments, you can call it tax credits or deductions, it ain't happen' in the 2008 (legislative) session," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. "I don't know how much clearer I can say it."

Curtis said any one of the 104 legislators can introduce any bill. But the 2008 session will be for "working within the public education system, not outside of it."

An income-tax credit or deduction for any Utah business giving to a private school scholarship fund would take money from public schools, since by the Utah Constitution, all individual and corporate income taxes go to education.

The idea has been contentious in past tuition tax-credit bills, with opponents worrying a business essentially could funnel its entire income-tax liability to private schools. Still, the Senate passed a bill containing such a provision in 2003, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, noted.

Still, in last week's election, "the public said they did not want any kind of private school actions on dealing with student growth," Valentine said. "So, we have to look at other solutions to the student growth. And it appears, because of that vote, that those solutions must be within the public school sector."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com, bbjr@desnews.com

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